If your child has special needs, you probably have many questions about choosing a preschool. What programs are you eligible for? How do you assess which are right for your child? Here are the answers you need to help simplify your search:
What Are We Entitled To?
By law, any 3- to 5-year old with documented disabilities is entitled to free preschool special education and needed related services, like speech therapy. To determine eligibility, your preschooler must be evaluated by your school district. The free testing will verify whether your child has a "handicapping condition," which can include vision or hearing impairments, developmental disorders such as Down syndrome, milder speech or motor delays.
Where Should I Start?
1. Check with disability organizations. They will help you learn about special-education resources in your area. If your child received early intervention services as an infant or toddler, ask your services coordinator to recommend preschool programs.
2. Contact your school district's Department of Special Education. Arrange to have your preschooler evaluated. A team of experts — usually including a psychologist, social worker, and teacher — will conduct developmental testing and gather medical history and observations from you and professionals who've worked with your child.
3. Consult on your child's Individualized Education Plan (IEP). It lists the services she requires, along with short- and long-term goals. The committee on preschool education will write the plan, with your input. Your child has the right to be educated in the "least restrictive" environment, meaning that, if possible, she should have opportunities to interact with children who are not disabled.
What Are My Options?
Programs vary according to school district, and may be full or half day. Here are some choices you might be given:
- A self-contained special-education preschool. Your child will be in a class comprised solely of special-needs kids. He'll receive direct instruction from teachers trained in developmental delays. But there will be little opportunity for him to interact with typically developing peers, who can model skills and behavior.
- A special-education preschool that includes children without disabilities. Disabled children and low-income preschoolers from the Head Start program are often combined in one class. Your child gets individualized attention, plus the chance to interact with non-disabled peers.
- A traditional community preschool, with support services. Your child attends a mainstream community preschool, and your school district provides a special-education teacher to act as a consultant there. That teacher meets with the preschool staff regularly to modify the program to your child's needs. Sometimes the district also provides free speech, occupational, or physical therapy at the preschool.
- Combination plans. If your school district offers you a half-day special-education class, consider supplementing it with another half-day program in a traditional community preschool.
What's Right for Your Child?
If your primary goal is socialization, a community preschool may be fine. But if you want your child to master functional skills, the better choice might be a special-education preschool that works on those throughout the day. When weighing your options, remember to:
- Visit programs. Talk to the director and teachers, and explain your child's challenges. Make sure the staff is willing to accommodate your preschooler.
- Ask about the curriculum. It should be play-based and developmentally appropriate.
- Discuss how IEP goals will be met. Will they be part of the class's daily routine, or will your child be pulled out for support services?
- Consider class size and number of teachers. Small groups are best — ideally no more than 12 children, with at least two teachers. Also talk to the school district about an aide if your child needs one.
- Foster partnerships. The preschool staff should be open to your feedback and willing to work closely with your child's therapists.
- Advocate for your child. If you feel the recommended program is wrong for your preschooler, negotiate before accepting what the school district offers. Ask professionals who have worked with your child to write letters on your behalf. Get an independent evaluation done, at your own expense, to support your position. Then meet with the committee on special education to calmly discuss other options and, hopefully, reach a compromise.